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Ground control to NASA TV: liven up

Coverage of topics like space exploration and the Earth should be mesmerizing. Instead, there's too much technical detail and silence.

December 27, 2009|By David Ferrell
  • NASA TV Executive Producer Fred Brown says the network is far from where it could be.
NASA TV Executive Producer Fred Brown says the network is far from where… (Tyrone Turner / For The Times )

If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they create interesting television?

Though the question could be aimed at any number of networks, it is perhaps most aptly directed at the people who really did put a man on the moon -- the clever workers at NASA, who are appearing in more living rooms than ever thanks to the expanding lineups of satellite and cable networks. Viewers who tune in to NASA Television for the first time might rightly expect to be starry-eyed with wonder at the incomprehensible mystery and vastness of space.

This is, after all, an era of profound discovery, when space telescopes beam back images of galaxies and nebulae in the remote reaches of the heavens, when crews come and go from the International Space Station, when probes hurtle toward Jupiter and beyond.

But clearly, a universe of possibilities does not assure an abundance of riveting programs. Witness one recent segment about the recovery of a Soyuz capsule upon its return to Earth. The dark, bullet-like object landed in the featureless steppes of Kazakhstan, about 50 miles outside the unheard-of town of Arkalyk. Coverage consisted of video shot from an all-terrain vehicle approaching it -- mostly soundless footage of tall grass going by -- with an occasional word by an unnamed commentator.

"You can see the antenna that deployed shortly after landing," the commentator said in that deadpan tone shared by scientists and golf announcers. The camera chronicled the tedious extraction of three crew members weakened by spending six months in orbit; they were loaded one by one onto stretchers.

"Again, a rather methodical process," the commentator noted, as if grasping for something -- anything -- to say. Later: "The official landing time has been revised to 1:15 and 34 seconds a.m., Central Time. The official time was recorded at the Russian Mission Control Center . . . by the Russian flight-control team."

Technical detail and dead air are distinctive staples of NASA TV programming. Typical shows feature live coverage of space-station activity, space shuttle launches, news conferences, wrap-ups of space-related news, and educational programs about such topics as asteroids and climate change on Earth. One frequent camera angle shows engineers sitting like automatons at consoles in the Mission Control room of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. During a recent telecast, the only action occurred when a man stood up and walked down an aisle, presumably hunting for a restroom.

Utter silence dragged on for 35 seconds, followed a moment later by 11 more seconds of nothingness.

Where is Carl Sagan when you need him?

"There are times . . . when I think to myself, 'Wow, in five minutes I've listened to something I was really interested in and I've managed to become really bored,'" said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Science, and especially science having to do with the exploration of space, has the potential to be exciting. But they've struggled. There's been a strange disconnect."

Like all too many viewers, Thompson wonders how it can be. He yearns for a broader mix of programming and for hosts who can translate mathematics and scientific jargon into concepts that laymen can understand -- and with sufficient panache, he said, to "avoid putting people to sleep."

"Let's face it, to program television takes special, sophisticated skills," Thompson said. Just as the average television director can't calculate the orbital trajectory of a comet, "you can't expect a highly placed space scientist to sit in a chair, strap on a mike, and talk compellingly to a TV audience for an hour. People who have been trained in the skills that make you a great scientist don't necessarily have the kind of skills that work in show business."

Humble beginnings

The man in charge of Washington, D.C.-based NASA Television, executive producer Fred Brown, acknowledges that the network is light-years from where it could be if it had the money and a mandate to properly entertain the masses. But that was never the point, he said. The network was launched in the early 1970s strictly to provide "real-time mission coverage" for NASA's own personnel, Brown said.

"It wasn't designed as a television channel as most people would think of a television channel," he added.

Over the years, its role has grown; it now offers educational programs and serves a public-relations function by keeping the media informed about space-related news.

It has also become far more widely available lately -- by satellite on DirecTV and the Dish Network, by cable on Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and other systems, and on the Internet at www.nasa.gov, Brown said. The service is provided free to the channels.

No one at NASA even knows how many viewers see the programming, since the federal agency does not bother to pay for Nielsen data, Brown said.

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